Archaeologists have unearthed the earliest calendar of the ancient Maya civilisation of Central America. It was written on the walls of a building within a vast lost city buried in the jungles of Guatemala.
Hundreds of inscriptions or “glyphs” etched or painted onto the building’s crumbling walls appear to represent the astronomical cycles of the Maya who assiduously followed the movements of the Sun, Moon and the visible planets such as Venus.
The calendar was created several centuries before the famous bark-paper Maya calendar known as the Dresden Codex, which was made just prior to the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the scientists said.
The room housing the mural appears to be the work space of scribes living in the Maya city of Xultun, a sprawling complex of buildings in Guatemala’s Peten region that was built between the first centuries BC and about 900AD over an area of 12 square miles.
Tiny, millimetre thick red and black glyphs appear to represent the various calendrical cycles of the Maya, such as the 260-day ceremonial calendar, the 365-day solar calendar, the 584-day cycle of the planet Venus and the 780-day cycle of Mars, according to a study published in the journal Science.
William Saturno of Boston University, who led the excavation funded by the National Geographic, said that many of the red and black glyphs are unlike anything else found at other Maya sites. Four long numbers appear on one of the walls and represent one-third of a million to 2.5 million days stretching 7,000 years into the future, which appears to be an attempt to bring together all the astronomical cycles that the Maya believed to be important.
“For the first time we get to see what may be actual records kept by a scribe, whose job was to be official record keeper of a Maya community…and they’re painting it on the wall. They seem to be using it like a blackboard,” Dr Saturno said.
One of the goals of the Maya calendar known as the Dresden Codex was to seek harmony between sacred rituals and the events they could witness in the sky, the scientists said. “The Xultun paintings may represent an expression of the same ambition several centuries earlier,” they said.